Engineering creativity is a core skill for every engineer. It’s even more important, for engineers who lead and work on the bleeding edge.
Because according to Wikipedia, engineering consists of the following creative activities:
Engineering is the use of scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items, including bridges, tunnels, roads, vehicles, and buildings.
Now, memorizing a bunch of theorems and equations doesn’t make engineers creative. But understanding how to apply mathematical and scientific concepts does. Even more, engineering creativity will be the last skill set to become automated. So creative skills will insulate you from the oncoming automation revolution.
#1 Run with the best idea you come up with
When you struggle to come up with the perfect idea, just run with the best idea you have. Even if it sucks at first, it’ll get the mental idea ball rolling. Then new ideas will spark and you won’t waste endless time searching for the perfect idea.
I always find getting a design on paper helps me discover issues I hadn’t thought of before. In the same vein, this is why prototypes are built. Prototypes allow you to do real-world investigative work to later find the perfect design.
#2 Question everything around you
A curious mind exposes you to answers and creative solutions. For example, the following are some Tesla vehicle questions you can ask:
- How do electric cars work?
- How is power safely transmitted in cables?
- What are the main advantages of electric cars over gasoline cars?
- How do cars drive autonomously?
- How can electric car batteries recharge so many times with so little degradation?
By learning from existing creative solutions, you collect more creative data points. Then the more data points you collect, the more creative you’ll become.
It’s important to realize, engineering today heavily relies on millions of past discoveries. For example, the company Tesla didn’t invent electric cars. The tech for electric cars existed for decades before Elon Musk ever took over at Tesla. Tesla simply iterated over the tech.
Surprising to many, this design iteration process is one type of engineering creativity. More often than not, you won’t design something super unique no one has seen before.
#3 Gather information in your field of work
The more knowledge you hold, the better you can dissect problems to find solutions. So I suggest becoming a vacuum and sucking in as much relevant information as you can in your field.
I believe each piece of information is a creative tool. Then the more creative tools you have, the better you can construct awesome solutions.
#4 Just start doing
You’re not going to become a creative wizard overnight. Everything worthwhile takes time. At the same time, with creativity, there’s no ceiling to shoot for as you can always get better.
So, the best thing is to always just start doing work. Then over time, your creativity will grow and grow. It’s a positive feedback loop.
This is why after every year of employment, you’ll find yourself doing more creative work. It’s not a coincidence.
#5 Read biographies of influential people in your field
Biographies are powerful creative tools. When you read one, focus on the thoughts of the person in the story. Try to pick apart how their mind worked and what made them tick.
Better yet, place yourself in their shoes with their problems staring back at you. Then, try to puzzle together solutions without peeking at what they did. Because everything in hindsight makes you say, “duh!”
Once you pick up their train of thought, use it to solve problems of your own.
#6 Disconnect from social media to free your mind
You need a clear mind for long stretches of time to tap into your engineering creativity. And one huge wall to creative thoughts is social media.
Social media constantly pulls your thoughts and emotions in different directions. The emotional triggers can then be wild and destructive. This then crashes your brain’s processing power.
So, protect your mind by limiting your usage of social media. Or at the very least, don’t read comments as they can be outright toxic.
#7 Don’t be afraid of starting from scratch
There’s nothing wrong with starting over. In fact, you’re doing everyone a huge disservice if you think your first idea is your best idea. More times than not, your first version is ONLY the starting point.
When I first started working as an engineer, I always tried to run with my first ideas. Because to me, they looked good and I didn’t want to waste time redoing everything. Not surprisingly, after I dug into my solutions, I always discovered design issues.
But because of my stubbornness, I wasted weeks of time trying to force a square peg into a round hole. All the while, the foundation of my designs had issues. Then finally one time, a senior engineer told me to start from scratch. This changed my thinking and saved me A LOT of time!
In short, even my shortcomings as a young buck were part of the creative process. I learned starting from scratch is okay. This is why now, I never get overly attached to any design.
#8 Look for new perspectives for designs
The common theme is, the more data you have, the more you can boost your engineering creativity.
But how can you quickly gather globs of amazing data? The answer is through perspective. Because more often than not, we get trapped inside our own thought bubbles. We then can’t view problems in different lights.
Not only does this limit your creativity, but you’ll almost never come up with the best designs. New perspectives though, allow you to dissect problems in completely different ways.
So if you’re designing cars, learn from different manufacturers. Then, go speak with the engineers who did the designs. Without a doubt, your car design creativity will skyrocket.
#9 Be a copycat
There’s a huge stigma around copying other people’s ideas. But the truth is, ALL engineers stand on the shoulders of past engineers and scientists.
I’m not saying to steal patents. Rather, iterate over and improve existing designs. All great engineers do this. It’s a form of creativity.
NO ONE creates designs so novel, without the influence of past discoveries. Even the innovative SpaceX wasn’t the first company to launch and reuse rockets. 25 years ago, NASA successfully launched its prototype reusable rocket called the DCX. The DCX could vertically launch and land.
Then SpaceX came along and iterated over the existing technology in an amazing way. SpaceX lands their Falcon Boosters on drone-controlled ships in the middle of oceans!
The point is, recycle past designs and then iterate over them to meet your project specs. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
#10 Constantly challenge yourself
Never settle! Rather, always challenge yourself in the following ways:
- Constantly learn
- Test new ideas over old ideas
- Take on new work you’ve never done before
Just think about it. If humans had become complacent, we could still be living in caves today. We would’ve become satisfied with life after just learning how to create fire with two sticks. Imagine how horrible life would be today…
This mentality of endlessly challenging the status quo is best seen today in Elon Musk. He’s constantly pushing the envelope with each of his companies. He’s not even slowing down as his challenges grow in size and complexity.
Elon’s secret sauce is using each of his successes as a stepping stone to greater challenges. And I bet if he lands humans on Mars, he’ll still continue to push the envelope.
#11 Distance yourself from your kryptonite
Distance yourself from any and all distractions. Because we all have focus-crashing kryptonite. For some people it’s their phone, for others it’s friends and family.
You need all your brainpower to tap into your engineering creativity. So, find your best focus geared environment and leverage it to unleash your creativity.
#12 Build confidence and overcome insecurity
Confidence is key when you entertain bold ideas. This is because the most creative ideas attract many naysayers. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear the following as an engineer:
“This is not how we do it. I’ve been doing this design for over 30 years this way. You’re just wasting your time!”
Everything is further magnified if you don’t have many years of experience. Or, if you don’t have the alphabet soup listed after your name. This is why the ability to crush your insecurities in engineering is so important.
#13 Write down your thoughts and ideas
I always find it funny how the best ideas strike you when you least expect them. So when a light bulb goes off in your head, quickly jot down your thoughts. Because more than likely, the idea will escape your mind and may never return. Your frustrations will then exponentially grow.
I’ve had this happen to me on one too many occasions to know better. So now, I always instantly write down any and all ideas, which strike my mind. I either use my notepad app on my phone, or I carry paper and pencil with me.
#14 Say “Yes!” more often
Working with close-minded people can be frustrating. It’s either their way or the highway. What’s worse, this creates echo chambers, which then negatively affects creativity.
As we learned in Tip #8, new perspectives are a huge part of creativity. So, always keep an open mind. Because a poor idea today may be the best idea tomorrow with some polishing.
Even if what you’re told is bullshit, it’s still another data point at your disposal. You’ll better learn what to do and not to do.
#15 Keep your head in the clouds and daydream more
We all daydream and there’s nothing shameful about it. The subjects you read about the most, tend to shape your daydreaming too. For this reason, I find daydreaming plays a critical role in boosting engineering creativity.
Even more, new studies suggest daydreaming may signal your aptitude level. People with too much brainpower can’t stop their minds from wandering. Then not surprisingly, a wandering mind is more likely to make discoveries.
So, when you daydream and think of all types of cool ideas, write them down. See what you can come up with. Because much of the creativity around us today, I’m sure came from people who got lost in their dreams.
#16 Exercise and break a sweat
No matter how you spin it, life is stressful. And I find exercise to be one of the best ways to reduce stress and clear your mind. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used exercise to reset my mind after stressful days.
I go under a heavy barbell and rep out the weight until I can’t lift anymore. Then, the same endorphins making me feel great, also help me better focus. This in return boosts my creativity.
#17 Step outside of your comfort zone and take risks
You can’t stay inside your comfort zone if you want to maximize your creativity. Because only safe and proven work sits inside your comfort zone.
To test your creative limits, you need to take risks and expose yourself to failure and ridicule. It’ll seem scary at first, but the greater the risk, the greater the reward.
What’s more, the higher you move up in engineering, the greater risks you’ll need to take. Because you’ll have less handholding to guide you as a leading expert. So all the required creativity will fall on YOUR shoulders.
#18 Find someone to lean on for emotional support
Tackling complex engineering problems can be mind-numbingly stressful. In these instances, any type of support helps. Especially if your support is someone in your field. Someone who can empathize with you, and give you feedback.
In return, you get inspiration and reassurance to continue on your creative path.
#19 Take a step outside of your circle of expertise
Sometimes, inspiration comes from industries outside of yours. Or even, from something completely off the wall.
For example, birds inspired humans to want to build airplanes. Just take a look at the Airbus “Bird of Prey” airliner inspired by eagles. The aircraft mimics an eagle’s wing and tail structure.
Even more fascinating is the inspiration from eagle feathers. They inspired the individually controlled aircraft feathers for active flight control. The point is, speak with people in industries outside of yours. Learn from them. Pick their brains.
Heck, go nature watch as you may come up with the next amazing vehicle. The goal is to gather as much data as possible to beef up your engineering creativity. Again, the more data at your fingertips, the more creative you’ll become. Even when it’s obscure data.
#20 Take yourself out of the context of reality
I’m not saying to take magical mushrooms. But, it’s important to pull yourself out of the context of your reality from time to time. Because the daily grind can shut the doors on your once bright childhood curiosity.
The great thing is, there are many safe ways to pull yourself out from your reality. I like to immerse myself in all the following mediums:
- Video games
- The lens of a telescope or microscope
All these activities help disconnect me from my everyday life bubble. Then, I get a whole new lens on life, which enhances my creativity. This traces back to Tip #8 with perspective.
As a favorite escape of mine, I suggest sitting alone and looking deep into the night sky. The cosmos is one of the most fascinating and intriguing escapes for the human mind. You instantly get zapped out from society’s shackles.
The ceiling of creativity differs from person to person. So not everyone can become a creative genius. But by using these 20 tips, you’ll without a doubt become a more creative engineer.
Even more, check out how to be a creative engineer in 7 steps. These 7 steps go hand in hand with the 20 tips in this article.
In the end, with boosted creativity, you’ll learn to better manipulate the world around you. This is a superpower few people have.
What are your suggestions for boosting engineering creativity? Do you think engineers can become more creative?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.